The Muse of History: Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott on Why Reconciling Our Conflicting Ancestral Pasts Is Necessary for Cultural Renewal
“Maturity is the assimilation of the features of every ancestor.”
By Maria Popova
“We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” James Baldwin asserted in 1960 as he contemplated freedom and how we imprison ourselves. But we can only make a broken world over if we first closely examine its parts — that is, its pasts — and take responsibility for the conditions as well as the consequences of its brokenness.
And yet, too often, we flee and burrow in the comforting certitude of our history, which is not the same as our past, no matter how false and hubristic such certitude may be. Baldwin himself touched on this a decade later in his spectacular and timely 1970 conversation with Margaret Mead about identity, race, and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility, where he observed: “What we call history is perhaps a way of avoiding responsibility for what has happened, is happening, in time.” Without taking such responsibility we couldn’t create that new and better world, for the great drama of its creation — like that of our self-creation — is that of weaving something new and wonderful from the tattered threads of our cultural history and convention.
That difficult, necessary, transcendent will to weave is what the great Caribbean poet, playwright, essayist, and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott (January 23, 1930–March 17, 2017) explores in a stirring 1974 essay titled “The Muse of History,” found in his essay collection What the Twilight Says (public library).
“Not to go onwards (in verse, as in everything) means to go backwards — that is, to leave the scene,” the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva wrote on the cusp of the Russian Revolution and its attendant cultural revolution as she considered why we must intimately understand something before we can rightfully reject it. Half a century later, Walcott echoes her insight, turning a skeptical eye to the generation of West Indian writers who dismiss hastily and wholesale the complex colonial legacy of the New World. He writes:
Those who break a tradition first hold it in awe. They perversely encourage disfavour, but because their sense of the past is of a timeless, yet habitable, moment, the New World owes them more than it does those who wrestle with that past, for their veneration subtilizes an arrogance which is tougher than violent rejection. They know that by openly fighting tradition we perpetuate it … and that maturity is the assimilation of the features of every ancestor.
For those who take this stance, Walcott argues, “history is fiction, subject to a fitful muse, memory.” In a sentiment that calls to mind philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s incisive ideas about the relationship between agency and victimhood, he writes:
The further the facts, the more history petrifies into myth. Thus, as we grow older as a race, we grow aware that history is written, that it is a kind of literature without morality, that in its actuaries the ego of the race is indissoluble and that everything depends on whether we write this fiction through the memory of hero or of victim.
In the New World servitude to the muse of history has produced a literature of recrimination and despair, a literature of revenge written by the descendants of slaves or a literature of remorse written by the descendants of masters. Because this literature serves historical truth, it yellows into polemic or evaporates in pathos. The truly tough aesthetic of the New World neither explains nor forgives history. It refuses to recognize it as a creative or culpable force.
Those whom Walcott celebrates as the great poets of the New World — Neruda, Whitman, Borges — reject this model of history and instead uphold a more ennobling alternative:
Their vision of man in the New World is Adamic. In their exuberance he is still capable of enormous wonder. Yet he has paid his accounts to Greece and Rome and walks in a world without monuments and ruins. They exhort him against the fearful magnet of older civilizations… Fact evaporates into myth. This is not the jaded cynicism which sees nothing new under the sun, it is an elation which sees everything as renewed… This is the revolutionary spirit at its deepest; it recalls the spirit to arms.
And yet this potential for renewal necessarily coexists with our shared legacy of outrage, which must remain a wakeful outrage and not a somnolent trance if we are to transcend our history. Walcott writes:
Who in the New World does not have a horror of the past, whether his ancestor was torturer or victim? Who, in the depth of conscience, is not silently screaming for pardon or for revenge? The pulse of New World history is the racing pulse beat of fear, the tiring cycles of stupidity and greed.
In time the slave surrendered to amnesia. That amnesia is the true history of the New World. That is our inheritance, but to try and understand why this happened, to condemn or justify is also the method of history, and these explanations are always the same: This happened because of that, this was understandable because, and in days men were such. These recriminations exchanged, the contrition of the master replaces the vengeance of the slave.
With an eye to classics like Whitman’s Democratic Vistas and radical poets like Neruda, who made of language a vehicle for redeeming the present without denying the past, he adds:
It is not the pressure of the past which torments great poets but the weight of the present… The sense of history in poets lives rawly along their nerves… The vision, the “democratic vista,” is not metaphorical, it is a social necessity.
Contemplating the challenge and the necessity of reconciling contrasting, often conflicting, histories and heritages — something he termed in another essay “that wrestling contradiction of being white in mind and black in body, as if the flesh were coal from which the spirit like tormented smoke writhed to escape” — Walcott writes:
We are misled by new prophets of bitterness who warn us against experiences which we have never cared to have, but the mass of society has had neither the interest nor the opportunity which they chose. These preach not to the converted but to those who have never lost faith. I do not mean religious faith but reality. Fisherman and peasant know who they are and what they are and where they are, and when we show them our wounded sensibilities we are, most of us, displaying self-inflicted wounds.
I accept this archipelago of the Americas. I say to the ancestor who sold me, and to the ancestor who bought me, I have no father, I want no such father, although I can understand you, black ghost, white ghost, when you both whisper “history,” for if I attempt to forgive you both I am falling into your idea of history which justifies and explains and expiates, and it is not mine to forgive, my memory cannot summon any filial love, since your features are anonymous and erased and I have no wish and no power to pardon. You were when you acted your roles, your given, historical roles of slave seller and slave buyer, men acting as men, and also you, father in the filth-ridden gut of the slave ship, to you they were also men, acting as men, with the cruelty of men, your fellowman and tribesman not moved or hovering with hesitation about your common race any longer than my other bastard ancestor hovered with his whip, but to you, inwardly forgiven grandfathers, I, like the more honest of my race, give a strange thanks. I give the strange and bitter and yet ennobling thanks for the monumental groaning and soldering of two great worlds, like the halves of a fruit seamed by its own bitter juice, that exiled from your own Edens you have placed me in the wonder of another, and that was my inheritance and your gift.
Complement What the Twilight Says with Walcott’s charming lighter side and his endlessly enlivening poem “Love After Love,” then revisit young Barack Obama on identity, race, and the search for coherence of selfhood.
Published January 23, 2017